BMW targets empty nesters with higher-riding compact cars

Juergen Bergmann likes to spend time in the forests near his home in Hamburg. What the active 72-year-old with tousled graying hair doesn’t like is squeezing himself into low-slung cars to drive there.

“Getting in and out of my wife’s BMW convertible is a struggle,” said Bergmann, who used to own a construction company and gave up driving BMW sedans about 10 years ago for a high-riding sport-utility vehicle.

With global ranks of older customers like Bergmann set to more than double to 2 billion people worldwide in the coming decades, carmakers are adapting their offerings for the needs of aging drivers. BMW’s response includes a van-like hatchback it designed from scratch with the elderly’s demands in mind. The model’s a gamble for a brand that’s typically associated with performance and has resonated with a younger clientele.

The world’s largest maker of luxury vehicles is wary not to overtly market the 2 Series Active Tourer as an old-folks car. Instead, the message in BMW’s promotional video is about youthful vigor. Young people and families, as well as a grey-haired cyclist, are shown using the car. The scenes are set to upbeat rock music that includes the lyrics: “We are too young to take it slow.”

“As soon as marketing is associated with some kind of handicap and limitation, it reduces its appeal,” said Hans Rudolf Schelling, managing director at University of Zurich’s Center for Gerontology. Still, there’s “huge potential” with these customers because “a large part of the older population has a high degree of disposable income.”

The 27,200-euro (US$36,600) Active Tourer, which will go on sale in Europe in September, targets drivers including “empty nesters,” or people whose kids have grown up and moved out, Harald Krueger, BMW’s production chief, said this week at an event in Austria to present the car.

The company expects about half the car’s buyers to be 55 years old and over. The new compact, which will share parts with Mini models to save costs as it competes with the Mercedes-Benz B-Class, could add about 250 million euros in operating profit next year, broker ISI Group estimates.

Most carmakers adjust to aging consumers by making subtle changes, which are appreciated by drivers of all ages, like larger buttons, clearer fonts for displays and seats with more back support. To adapt their vehicles, Ford and Nissan have developers slip into a suit that simulates the limited movement and fading eyesight associated with aging.

BMW’s Active Tourer, which marks the brand’s first front-wheel drive car and is largely unrelated to the 2 Series coupe, reflects a more aggressive approach. Such efforts to stretch into new segments have backfired in the past. The boxy Mercedes A-Class in 1997 became known as a car for pensioners rather than wooing younger buyers as planned. The model was transformed into the current sportier version two years ago. Over that period, Mercedes dropped to third from No. 1 in luxury cars.

“We often discuss how far we can stretch the brand,” Hildegard Wortmann, senior vice president for product management at BMW, said in an interview. “Some previous taboos have certainly been broken,” including with Active Tourer’s front- wheel drive.

With its elevated seating and high roofline, the car is spacious and easy to enter as well as a far cry from racy sedans like the company’s M3. To maintain its premium image, Munich-based BMW added high-tech features such as a head-up display, which projects speed and navigation instructions just above the steering wheel.

“The product needs to be authentic,” Krueger said. “It still needs to drive like a BMW.”

Combined with a planned seven-seat Gran Tourer version, the model is set to account for more than 125,000 deliveries in 2017, beating the Mercedes B-Class’s 105,000, researcher IHS Automotive estimates. Volkswagen AG’s Audi, the No. 2 luxury-car brand, has yet to offer a competing model.

The prospects for age-sensitive cars are rosy. About one in every five people on the planet will be at least 60 years old by 2050. That’s 2 billion people compared with 841 million in 2013, according to a United Nations study. The trend is especially evident in BMW’s home region. The median age in the European Union will rise to 49.3 years in 2060 from 40.1 years in 2010, a study by the European Parliamentary Research Service said.

For this growing customer base, the Active Tourer will offer a cheaper, compact alternative to SUVs like the 37,200- euro X3 and the 52,100-euro X5 to maintain BMW’s sales lead over Daimler AG’s Mercedes and Audi. That will give Bergmann’s wife a counter argument as the outdoorsman considers replacing his X5. While the BMW SUV is spacious enough for his hunting haul, it’s a bit bulky for Hamburg traffic.

“My wife was against the car because it’s so large,” said the former sedan driver.

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